Like gifts themselves, Christmas albums shouldn’t be obligations, though they all too often are. And also like gifts, the ones worth receiving and embracing are those that in spite of the familiar structure, find new ways to deliver old thrills. Or even, sometimes, new thrills. Or even more rarely, something not thrilling, but bracing; not all holiday experiences are cheerful. Here, the pop and jazz critics of The New York Times look for meaning, and hidden presents, in this year’s crop of holiday releases. JON CARAMANICA

SHELBY LYNNE: ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS’ (Everso, $12.98). There are 11 songs on “Merry Christmas,” Shelby Lynne’s first holiday album, and almost as many styles: a bluegrass “Christmastime’s a-Coming,” new age flutes on “White Christmas,” and a Bakersfield, Calif.-style “Winter Wonderland.” “Ain’t Nothin’ Like Christmas,” one of Ms. Lynne’s two originals, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an Elvis Christmas album, and her takes on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” are smiling. But Ms. Lynne, who flirts with the outskirts of the country mainstream, isn’t a genial singer. She brings bruised, anguished colors to “Silent Night” and “Christmas Time Is Here.” And “Xmas,” her other original, is pure lament. “Christmas makes me sad/And I’m being bad,” Ms. Lynne sings, over questionable smooth-jazz saxophone. “Holiday cocktails make me forget/The gifts that Daddy never opened.” JON CARAMANICA

Shelby Lynne “Merry Christmas” (EVER180 / 00044003106307 / C12)


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